For a writer, it’s a word. For a composer or musician, it’s a note. For an editor, it’s the frame, and two frames off is the difference between a sweet note and a sour note. -Quentin Tarantino
The post-production editing process is the stage where a film not only comes together, but its narrative is given substance and life. It is the myriad of editing techniques that take the raw footage or filming sessions to the smooth, effective, and often powerful message or story that we experience as viewers.
In a film that is successful in drawing the viewer into the narrative and the fictional world created within the film, the editing will often be unnoticeable. In effective editing, the pacing, sequences, transitions, and continuity of the film will seem natural and blend in as part of the viewing experience. If an editing technique stands out, it is probably the result of a mistake or poor editing. Though, some directors and editors may make the editing techniques more obvious to create a different viewing experience, like Hitchcock’s camera techniques in Psycho.
The main editing technique that is used in creating believability and advancing the narrative is continuity. Continuity refers to the technique of maintaining consistency within the story narrative and within scenes. Continuity can be related to the physical objects within a scene, like making sure the actors wear the same clothes throughout the frames of a scene or the items in the background remain in their respective positions and arrangement. This aids in maintaining the realistic nature of the story, but the technical continuity plays a major role as well. The technical aspects of continuity deal with maintaining consistent audio and lighting levels from scene to scene. Transitions, the changes between shots, also add to the overall narrative. Usually cuts, the instant change from one frame to another, are used to progress from frame to frame. Other transitions like the dissolve or wipe can be used to create a more noticeable or definite transition to signal the end of a scene or major segment of the film.
Even though these traditional editing techniques are used across the board to create believable films, continuity and transitions can be used outside their traditional sense to create different effects. Many directors have experimented with continuity when implementing flashbacks or shocking elements in their films by breaking up the continuity or jumping to unrelated shots in order to confuse or make a point. With transitions, dissolves are usually used to signal the beginning of a dream sequence within the film, so that the viewer can be aware of what is going on. In Fellini’s famous film 8 1/2, he did not use the traditional dissolve transition when switching between reality and dream scenes, which created a disconcerted and disjointed effect. This goes to show that the editing process has a tremendous influence over the efficacy and message of a film.